A small, soft-spoken, poignant, and profoundly terrible* book about beekeeping, loss, Hiroshima, madness, time, the glass harmonica, the fallibility of memory, the secret life of the soul, and the creeping inevitability of old age.
Everybody knows what this one is about, right? Sherlock Holmes, in his nineties, frail of body and failing of memory, returns home to his Sussex apiary after a final trip to post-WWII Japan, where he has gone seeking, among other things, a legendary medicine. The book entertwines three parallel timelines--one concerning an unsatisfactorily resolved case from his days in London, the second his travels in Japan, and the third in Sussex, where before the book is out there will be a mysterious death. Cullen interweaves these threads in such a way as to illuminate both Holmes's fading memory (and the confabulations it presents him with, until the entire narrative takes on an air of unreliability) and his still-phenomenal deductive skills.
It's Holmes from his own point of view (the book is in omniscient, but it stays tightly tied to his point of view most of the time, and some passages are told as if from his own pen) and it's actually done well, something I'm not sure I've ever seen before. There are moments when the voice doesn't strike me as quite right. But there are more moments when it does.
And there were places where I had doubts about the narrative integrity, but the wandery is thematic, and Cullen pulls it off (and pulls it together) in the end. It's strings of echoes and harmonies, like the thematic glass harmonica, and everything in this book is doing triple or quadruply duty, narratively speaking.
It's an illuminating and tender and deeply sorrowful book, but it's sorrowful in the right way. By which I mean, it's a very brave kind of sorrow, and not one that ever admits of defeat.
Also, it's beautifully written, in a very soft and understated manner:
Then, in that instant, he could think of nothing else to say. The words, he feared, had all dried up, and there was little else for him to impart. She looked away, staring ahead. He hoped that she would offer something, yet he was sure that she would not. So it was as though, out of frustration or out of pure impatience with himself, he decided to dispense with the endless weighing of his own thoughts and, instead, speak withut first considering the actual meaning of what would be said.
"I wonder--might I ask--what attracts you to such a thing as an iris?"
"She drew a deep breath of temperate spring air and, for no clear reason, shook her head. "What attracts me to such a thing as an iris? It is something I have never really examined." She breathed deeply again and smiled to herself, finally saying, "I suppose a flower thrives during even the worst of times, does it not? And an iris endures. After it has withered, there comes another just like it to take its place. In that regard, flowers are short-lived but persistent, so I suspect they are less affected by all which is great or awful around them. Does that answer your question?"
*in the Ivan sense